9 Lessons I've Learned being a Solopreneur
I’m new to the world of business. My background is not in marketing or finance. Up until 4 years ago I identified as being ‘a mom with a background in bachelor’s in Computer Science.’ So having to navigate the world of products, services, marketing and branding has been more than just a consistent experience of ups and downs. It’s been an experience of growth, self-development and self-understanding. Here are my 9 lessons from being a solo entrepreneur:
1. It’s Lonely as Hell
Apart from being up in the middle of the night with a crying infant, being a solo-entrepreneur is the loneliest thing I have ever been through. I would describe myself as an introvert, so I enjoy being by myself, but in business, it’s different. Spending a lot of time alone, in your head in business means you’re not spending enough time ‘doing’. I’m not talking about daydreaming here, I’m saying that I spend a lot of time planning and I may overthink simple decisions, which can translate into wasted time and energy.
I can’t express how grateful I am for the friends and family I have in my circle. Being able speak to fellow entrepreneurs about the challenges and frustrations is such a relief. It wasn’t there valuable advice that I appreciated most, but it was the “I hear you, I can relate, and here is my shoulder to cry on whenever you need it”. Those hours spent in ‘girl time’ really got me through some tough times.
There have been many times, when I thought, ‘Ok, I need to find a business partner’. If met someone whom I thought was intelligent, creative, or could add value to my business, I would ask them if they wanted to partner up. Some were enthusiastic about the idea, but their enthusiasm quickly died down. It wasn’t meant to be.
2. Mentors Are Everywhere.
When I first started my business I had 4 mentors that I would see or meet with regularly for different reasons, They introduced me to the world of business startups, marketing, and branding. When I moved to Khobar, I thought “Ok, I need to find myself a mentor now.” I was always open to the idea, but it’s not like you can google search some candidates and filter through to find the perfect match.
Instead, I quickly learned that mentors are everywhere if you are willing to listen. Thanks to the presentations I’ve attended, the entrepreneurs I follow on instagram, the podcasts I listen to, the authors I’ve encountered, the YouTube presentation, the TED Talks, and the online courses I’ve taken, I am no longer looking for any mentors. I have plenty, and their voices are in my head constantly whenever I need to make a decision or I’m faced with a challenge. I know that whey I make a decision it is from the collective learning that’s happened over the hours spent reading and listening.
3. Mistakes Will Be Made. Just Get Used to it.
It comes from a place of excitement colliding with inexperience. It’s equally sad and beautiful. I think one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made was moving my production from my home kitchen into a larger workspace 20 minutes away from home. That decision was made too soon. And here’s why:
My children were too young to be left alone a the time. I had only 4 hours during the day when everyone of them was at school to get work done in the workshop, which was not enough to achieve any kind of traction. There was the financial burden of making rent. And then there was the pressure of purchasing equipment, setting up this bigger space, making a lot of products to sell, and marketing those products to make the rent.
In retrospect, that was the wrong decision to make for me, at the time, considering the stage of my business, and my stage in life with my family. Now when I’m faced with a decision that requires a substantial investment or has to do with growth, I take my time and I think of the reasons why I’d like to make that decision. Will it really serve me? Or am I just excited?
4. Learn Fast, and Apply Faster
I’ve taken a lot of courses both online and on location and I’ve learned that if I don’t apply what Ive learned quickly, I’ll forget it completely. I think it comes from the flood of information that I’m exposed to as well as the tasks that need to be taken care of. When I am taking courses, these are the times where I wish I had help, so the actual business isn’t interrupted while new learning is taking place and needs to be applied.
I tend to invest a lot in books and online courses. I confess I am an online course junkie. And although I do believe that I can never invest too much in my education, I’ve realized that there are some courses I never completed by taking action on what I’ve learned.
5. Hire Slow, Fire Fast
It took me 3 years to hire my first employee. When I did, I hired her to help me with whatever I needed help with. That was a bad decision. It was a combination of bad timing and bad management on my part, there was just not enough work to justify her salary. It quickly drained my bank account, and in 3 months I had to let her go. I have to admit it was awkward for me to say: "Sorry, I can’t have you on my payroll anymore," but it had to be done.
Some may argue that you need to hire early to get some mundane tasks done, to take things off your plate, so you can focus on the most important parts of your business, but for me, and for this stage of my business, I don’t think I’ll hire anyone til I have at least 6 months’ of salary already allocated, and a very clear job description with tasks and a plan for that position.
6. Disappointment will come from where you least expect it.
In January of 2018, I received an email reminder that the rent for my workshop was due in March, and I was asked if I wanted to renew my contract. I spent the next 6 weeks agonizing about the decision, thinking of getting a job, wondering about the future. It’s not that I didn’t want to stay in the the workshop which was part of a non profit organization, it was because I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to pay the rent in full. 10 days before the rent was due, I sent an email asking if I could have a 3 month extension to make the payment, and that I would pay the amount in full in 3 months time. My request was declined. I was disappointed but I asked if I could postpone paying until the end of the month, determined that I would find a way to make the rest of the money even if I had to ask my family for it. My request was again declined with a one line email that said: “Rent is due when rent is due”. I replied saying that I could pay part of the amount, with a promise that I would pay the rest by the end of the month. ( I was getting really desperate here). I was declined again.
Here’s why I was disappointed: 1. In the two years that I’d been renting the space I had always paid in full and on time, and 2. this was an organization that prided themselves on being a non-profit supporting women. Literally that was everything they preached. So I couldn’t fathom how they could just give me the cold shoulder when I truly needed their ‘support’. I mean, this is when it really mattered. When “one of their very own projects”, “One of their very own girls” needed their understanding and flexibility, I realized I was no more than one of the paying customers that couldn’t pay on time.
That was an eye opening experience for me. It changed my whole perspective about doing business, about being part of non-profit organization, about people who make claims simply to look good in the media and push their own agendas. It really is all for the cameras and VIPs, unless you can offer something in return.
It was over very quickly. There were no other emails. No one from the organization ever called, except to ask how soon I could clear out my belongings to make room for the new business that needed the space. My feelings quickly went from disappointment, to anger, to relief. And I moved on.
7. Keep Your Head Down and Get to Work
This one is about competition and the pressures of social media.
There will always be competition. People doing the same thing that you’re doing and people copying your ideas and posts. Do you know how much energy it takes to keep up with competitors? More than you can afford. If they’re spending their time watching your every move then congratulations, 1. That’s less time that they’re spending on their own business and more opportunity for you to get ahead. 2. You must be doing something right if they’re worried about you that much.
Just keep your eyes on where you are going and don’t worry about the trolls. Focus on your message, your brand, your ideas and your plans. What you bring to this world is your unique creation. If your competitors are copying you, trust that customers can see right through it, and just focus on your content, your product, your service.
8. When It’s Time to Out Source a Task, Hire the Most Professional People or Don’t Outsource it at all.
If you can’t afford the best team to outsource to, then it’s not time to outsource that task. Because hiring the wrong people to do the job will cost you so much more.
I’ve hired amateur photographers, accountants and printing presses. To put it all in perspective for you (and for your amusement):
Hiring the amateur photographers cost me SR3000 , 3 months, and 92 emails worth of time and frustration.
Hiring the amateur accountant cost me SR1800, 3 months, missing deadlines on paying taxes, and time following up with said accountant and frustration.
Hiring the amateur printing press cost me SR500, 3 weeks, less than par quality on labels, delays on scheduled deliveries, commute time, and yes, you guessed more frustration.
And let me tell you something, all that happened within the same 3 months! So I have been very frustrated and doing a lot of praying.
Save your time, money, and energy being frustrated. Hire the professionals. Also, plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to screen who you’re going to hire. Ask for samples of their work. If you feel like they are rushing you into making a decision or take too long to show you a sample, drop them.
9. Back Up Your Work.
In the summer of 2018 I travelled to a foreign country, and enrolled my kids in an all day summer camp. While most people would take this time to go sightseeing and shopping, I found it to be the perfect opportunity to reflect on my business, develop plans and take some online courses. Two weeks in, everything was perfect. I got up to make myself a cup of coffee, and came back to my laptop to find a black screen. Simply put, my laptop just died.
There were no previous warning signs that something was wrong. It just happened, and I had no back up for my work, or a back up machine to work on. The remaining time I had alone while my kids were at camp was spent trying to find someone to fix my computer. Luckily I found help, got my machine to work again, and backed up my files, only to have it break down again a few days later.
I love being an entrepreneur. I love the risk, I love the challenge. I genuinely enjoy everything that Im learning. I think all those terrible experiences have made me a little bit smarter, a little bit wiser, and a little bit more humble. Entrepreneurship cannot be rushed. And I think the one thing you can count on is that there will always be some sort of change. Accepting that in every situation is important.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to defame or blame any person or entity. It is an honest, account of challenges I’m facing in my entrepreneurship story, defying the norm in our culture to sugar coat even the most unfortunate events.